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Connections

My son’s the shortest player on the basketball team

How I learned to let him play fearlessly, despite his size.

(Gracia Lam)

I am halfway up the bleachers, sitting with a group of parents, watching our 12-year-old children play basketball. It should be a perfectly lovely afternoon.

But my son is the shortest player on his team. A 5-pound full-term baby, he has been bumping along at the bottom of the growth charts ever since. I tell myself that short is fine. I’m short, my husband is short, and we have great lives. So far, even our son thinks short is fine.

“I’m fine with that,” he said at 6 years old when he began to realize that he was short. “Because I’m mighty.”

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Today the mighty boy is running up and down the basketball court, and I am blindsided by clanging heartstrings and free-ranging anxiety.

I want my mighty boy to do what he loves. And he loves sports. But basketball is a big sport. Big people, big feet pounding on wooden floors, big bursts of action, big jumps.

From the bleachers, I see my little spot of hustle come roaring off the bench, fast, agile, full of daring and drive. Like a mosquito, buzzing along the ground. He disappears behind a player from the other team — a player who may weigh 100 pounds more than he does. He darts out. He has the ball! He’s dribbling down the court. The massive player chasing him reaches out, going for the ball, when WHAM! The big guy misses the ball and swats my son, effortlessly, into the air.

Well, that hasn’t actually happened. Yet. But I see it coming. I see players whose eyes are so far above my son that he’s not even in their line of sight. I see them running him over and not even noticing. I see them stopping, a towering wall that drops him to the floor as he turns toward them.

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Down there on the floor, he sees a different game. He sees holes to slip into, opportunities for a fast break, little bare patches beckoning to him for a quick pivot.

He plays point guard. He runs the ball down the court, calls out the plays, darts left and right, hooks the ball over his head to his tall teammates near the basket. Score!

“I have a low center of gravity, Mom,” he tells me. “Some of those tall players, they can’t turn and spin so fast.”

It’s true. But it doesn’t stop my pounding heart. I squirm and shiver and cover my eyes. I try to keep silent, but the sheer difference in size of these preteen players takes my breath away.

Last year, I spent one especially rough game calling, “Gentle — gentle up. Take it easy.” I cupped my hands around my mouth so no one else could hear it, and I said it only when he was running past me. Mama bear talking right into my cub’s ear.

But a tall dad, father of one of my son’s teammates, heard me and slid across the bench to talk. “You can’t tell him to be gentle,” he said with a combination of compassion and surprise. “Really, you can’t say those things to him.” He explained that a short player with hustle will command respect. A short player can’t be gentle. Let him play, said the tall dad. Let him play.

So I let him play. Like a terrier. Like a ferret. Like a rabbit under hungry eagles.

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I let him play and I gasp and squirm and I clap and cheer. And in the car on the way home from every game, he dissects the plays and assesses the teams and plans to do better in the next contest.

Hearing his voice, watching that happy bundle of intensity through my rearview mirror, I relax and smile back.

Because he’s right. He knows. He’s mighty.

Caroline Woodwell is a New England native now living in Spokane, Washington. Send comments to connections@globe.com.


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